In my life, I was never far from a Chinese market. I was bargaining for a jing of fava beans, picking a chicken with its head and feet still attached, watching turtles blink wearily at their fate. I would wander through barrels of strange herbs and dried fish, smelling cuttlefish browning on a hibachi. I would paw through fish to get the one with the clearest gaze, argue with the butcher for the meat with the freshest sheen.
My family’s biggest concern, when I moved to Dublin, was where I was going to buy sesame oil. “What are you going to eat?” my mother wailed. “You love tofu. Where will you find tofu? And fish sauce?” Maybe the Asian market gods were listening because they gave me Asia Market on Drury Street only five steps away from my first apartment.
Asia Market isn’t as large as Kanman in New York or Baba in Boston but it has five magisterial aisles. There’s a sliding door, and before the entrance was painted yellow, the way to remember where it was on Drury Street was the old-fashioned red and blue striped barber pole that marks the Grafton Street Barber next door. I went through the unprepossessing entrance into a small lobby and make a sharp right. And while Asia Market isn’t massive, like Doctor Who’s Tardis, Asia Market is a lot bigger on the inside. (It brings out my inner nerd.)
See the pak choi, coriander, winter melon, Japanese aubergine, watercress, water-spinach, chilis from Thailand and India, fresh peppercorns, turmeric root and lime and curry leaves. In season, you can buy a box of fruit for practically nothing — cherries and pomelos, lychees, and Asian pears. There is a massive freezer where you can find frozen durian, sashimi, wonton wrappers, and yuba. There is Chinese bacon, Chinese sausage, Vietnamese pates, fish balls, fresh noodles, and fresh meats – the fattier, more gelatinous cuts that we Chinese tend to adore – like pork belly, beef brisket, shin, and oxtail. Plus seafood, which is always fresh but what you see is what you get. Tiny crabs still alive and snapping, oysters, and scallops enclosed in their shell.
Asia Market is also clean. Perhaps only if you are a Chinese market denizen, can you appreciate how tidy, fresh-smelling, and cordial the Dublin Asian Market is. The Kanmans and Babas in this world are chaotic like the markets in Shanghai and Taipei. But at Dublin’s Asia Market, the vegetables are bright and glossy. All the meat smells clean and the butchers from where they came are clearly labeled. None of the products are mixed up and there is no coat of dust on the shelves. The fruits have a lovely, intoxicating perfume and colour. There is not the smell of dried fish in the air, nor the piped Cantonese love ballads that every other Chinese market from Shanghai to Sao Paolo seems to have playing on a loop. Plus the building itself is beautiful. It is one of the oldest buildings from the original Georges Arcade Market, and everywhere you wander, you can see the 19th century brickwork and bones.
My Americanized family delights in Dublin’s Asia Market. (My mother left Taiwan when she was ten years old so she has no real nostalgia for the war zones that are Chinese markets.) “Everything is so bright! Fresh! Organised!” they exclaim. In New York, I would have to board a bus and then fight the crowds on Canal Street. Therefore, although I ate Chinese food out, I rarely made Chinese food at home. Now, with Asia Market a few steps away, I am eating Chinese food all the time.
The owner Howard Pau, who is Hong Kong born and raised, opened the Asia Market back in 1981, when he was working as an engineer in Grimbsy, England. His brother, who ran a Chinese restaurant in Ireland, called him and said, “You have to get over here! There’s so many Chinese restaurants in Ireland and there are no suppliers.” Ireland, at the time, was a Chinese ingredient desert, and yet there were restaurants opening up to keep up with popular demand. Kwanghi was a kid back then, working in his family’s restaurant in Buncrana, recalls the days before Asia Market, which opened in Belfast and then in Dublin. “We would wait for supplies to come in from England,” Kwanghi says, “And that was unreliable, so we’d have bags and bags of rice stocked up in case the deliveries wouldn’t come. Closets full of oyster sauce in case something went wrong.”
What about Asian vegetables in the days before Asia Market? Kwanghi says, “We grew beansprouts in the bathtub.”
But as I walk with Mr. Pau through Asia market, Mr. Pau waves his hand and chuckles. “I’m glad you like it,” he tells me, “Me… I’m not sure. It’s too clean. It’s not Chinese.” Of course, Mr. Pau’s right. Chinese markets are savage places. Everyone is screeching and scrambling. However, while I like an “authentic” Chinese market, I enjoy it in a tourist sort of way. Let’s face it, sometimes when I want a bottle of oyster sauce, I want to have it without having to go into battle. I love the Dublin Asia Market because, like me, it is half China and half West.
There’s something else about the Asia Market which is that there is, pulsing through it, a thread of family. Mr. Pau waxes lyrically about that Christmas when his daughter Eva was born, in Manchester, and he lifted her so that all his friends could see her through the window. (No one but family was allowed inside the hospital.) He likes the Asia Market, but his daughter is his proudest accomplishment. He’ll talk about the business that he built, but he’d rather talk about Eva. Eva, who was born in England and grew up in Dublin, widens her eyes when I say this. Eva is now in charge of the Asia Market, sweet voiced and pretty, but competent like her father. She says, “Really? My father never talks about me.”
I say, “Yeah, he only does it when you’re not around. He’s like all dads.” Regardless of time and place and nationality, certain things – like a father-daughter relationship, are the same.
I especially appreciate the proximity of the Asia Market when I am homesick. I live a six hour flight from my mother, and ten hours from my brother. And when I ache for my family, I want home-style Chinese food, not the restaurant stuff. I crave the comfort food that my mother and my aunts and my grandmother used to make. Mock duck — thin layers of yuba wrapped around fresh shitakes and braised in stock and sesame oil. Pork ribs cooked slowly in anise, potatoes, and green beans, which my partner Tommy calls “Chinese Irish stew.” Missing my family, I’ll quickly slice some Chinese sausages and stirfry it with rice. I dice tofu cold and stir it with salted eggs and soy sauce. Thank you, Asia Market and Mr. Pau. Mr. Pau, I know that your shop is not as rowdy as you would like it to be, but for me, it embraces the best of all of my worlds. Sometimes when I am bereft, it makes me feel like I have a little bit of my family here with me.
What you need to know.
- Don’t be afraid.
So many Irish people have told me they don’t go to the Asia Market because they are intimidated. Don’t be. My non-Asian friends constantly do battle at Chinese, Korean, and Japanese markets all the time, and all I can say is – Irish people, you have no idea how good you have it with the Asia Market. Everything at the Dublin Asia Market is labeled and clean and the aisles are wide. If you can’t find something, just ask. We Chinese do not bite.
Some people say that the shopgirls can be “unfriendly” to non-Chinese. Trust us, the ones who are a bit standoffish are like that to the Chinese too. Like London sales girls and tortoiseshell cats, they might be initially distant to strangers, but they really do warm up once they get to know you. Once they do, they are incredible.
- Some of my favourite things.
Silk squash. Chinese sausage. Japanese curry. Tofu of all kinds – melt in your mouth custard, pressed and dried and redolent of soy and anise, and the tofu skins that we call yuba. Chinese bacon. Shoyu. Winter melon. Salted duck eggs. Black lime leaves. Champagne mangos, small, shapely, and heavy with perfume. Plus, Asia Market gets the best green papayas year-round. My Thai friends in New York and in Paris are jealous. Young coconuts from which you suck the juice from a straw, before scraping the tender, slightly sweet flesh with a spoon.
- Don’t get lost.
Eva Pau, the lovely, Irish-Chinese daughter of Howard, assures me that she is working on an interactive map of the market for customers. In the meantime, here is a brief breakdown. At the shop’s entrance, there’s a tea shop where you can get a cuppa and some sweet Chinese treats.
Then enter, and you’ll face a wall of Chinese cookware, cleavers, chopsticks, teapots. My favourites are the basic blue and white designs, which are reminiscent of the dishes that my mother would buy. Turn right and that’s when the Asia Market becomes like a Tardis.
Aisle one. Vegetables and fruits, fresh and tempting and varied. In the middle, is the massive deep freeze. Then further along, to your right, is the refrigerated section, you’ll get your tofu, Vietnamese pates, buns, meats, fish balls, soy milk, fresh noodles, and seafood. To your left is the JAPANESE AND KOREAN section. Japanese curry paste, yuzu (a Japanese grapefruit lemon citrus fruit) shoyu, shiso viegar, wasabi peas, pickled ginger. This is important. I often crave a Japanese katsu curry, pickled ginger for my rice, or dashi powder for my eggs. In many Chinese markets, those ingredients are not guaranteed to be there. In Asia Market, they are there every time. In the middle is the freezer with yuba, frozen durian, dumpling and egg roll wrappers, and also frozen packs of Japanese ramen, which, if you can’t make your own ramen, is the second best thing.
Aisle 2 is snacks, dessert, dried fruit, canned fruit, and also all varieties of your sauces and oils. Aisle 3 I christen the aisle of stuff that won’t spoil even when you open it. Pickles, seeds, dried goods, tea. Also there are what I like to call “Western ingredients that make sense only to Asians.” These are sardines, Spam, dehydrated potatoes, ketchup, and Maggi seasoning. In certain ways, Aisle 3 is a great place for a budding food anthropologist, because it represents the crazy, random crap that Asian people love. (In other words, behind every can of Spam, there is a story.) Aisle 4 where you get the health food and Middle Eastern ingredients that are so much more expensive anywhere else. Black lentils, green lentils, yellow lentils, gram flour. Seeds of Paradise. Rose water. Also, on the other side, instant ramen and rice, but a lot of it. At the back of the market, you will find your funky Asian drinks (plum juice and milk tea) but also coconut water because, dude, we Asians have been drinking that stuff before it was good for you. Also, another freezer section with dumplings. Eat those frozen dumplings. Especially the chicken-shitake, the beef and onion, and the lamb and carrot. At the front of the shop, you will find sake, beer, and plum wine.
Last but not least, before you leave, grab yourself some egg-waffles in the front. These are made to order and scalding hot, crisp on the outside, slightly sweet and custardy within. I call them Chinese madeleines. When I was a little girl, there was one vendor in all of New York’s Chinatown who would make them, and the line would snake around the block, and during a winter weekend, I would wait happily, jumping up and down in the cold, holding a parent’s hand.